Today, that sounds like a fable, a tale our elders tell about how rough life was "back in the day." Now, it seems that the rule is that pitchers not only come back, but come back quickly. It is a rare exception when a pitcher doesn't return from Tommy John surgery.
It's with that context that Jim Callis and I tackle this week's Pipeline Perspectives: Which young Tommy John recipient do we feel most optimistic about regarding long-term Major League success? While Jim is going with the Orioles' Dylan Bundy, I'm arguing the case for Lucas Giolito of the Nationals.
The best high school pitchers in back-to-back Drafts, the two are at different points in their recoveries. Bundy had his surgery in late June of this year. Giolito went under the knife in August 2012 and returned to competitive pitching this summer.
But this isn't really about who is going to be pitching first. And truth be told, it's probably safe to assume that Jim and I believe both Bundy and Giolito will go on to have the kinds of careers many envisioned when they came out of the 2011 and 2012 Drafts, respectively. But while Bundy already made a beeline up to the big leagues, pitching in two games in September 2012, I believe Giolito is poised to start his own climb.
The big right-hander from Southern California, ranked No. 69 on MLB.com's Top 100 Prospects list, came back and pitched exceptionally well in 11 well-monitored outings spanning 36 2/3 innings, throwing first in the Gulf Coast League and then in the short-season New York-Penn League. Giolito kept going in instructional league play and looks ready to take full-season ball by storm in 2014.
"He's doing great in all phases," Nationals farm director Doug Harris said. "He had a terrific instructional league. The biggest things in instructs were fundamentals, like holding runners and fielding his position. His changeup grew significantly. At the start, the separation [between his changeup and fastball] wasn't where we wanted it to be. By the end, it was 12, 13 miles per hour, and he was throwing it for strikes."
That could be a huge difference-maker. The argument for Bundy might be his overall pitchability, but if Giolito's offspeed stuff has improved that much in such a short time, it will really give him a chance to pitch at or near the top of the Nats' rotation one day, alongside or right behind Stephen Strasburg.
That's because Giolito's other stuff is already other-worldly, and is already snapping back to pre-injury quality. He'll throw his fastball anywhere from 93-100 mph, adding and subtracting as needed. Giolito is 6-foot-6, so he throws it from a tremendous angle. He's able to get swings and misses up in the zone, but he also can bury a fastball down in the zone for strikes, making it unique beyond just pure velocity.
Giolito's breaking ball is plus, too. And now that he's on a mound and back to developing normally, it's getting better and better.
"The breaking ball is as good as you want to see," Harris said. "I know that's a bold statement. It's a legitimate swing-and-miss power curve. He's learning to repeat it and throw it for strikes."
Behind rehabilitation coach Mark Grater and pitching coordinator Spin Williams, the Nationals believe they have as good a rehab program and staff as any team in baseball. So it didn't surprise them internally that they were able to see what Giolito was capable of so quickly this summer. Add in a maturity that belies his 19 years and no one doubts, myself included, that he is ready to start fulfilling the immense potential that made many think he could have been the first high school right-hander to ever be drafted No. 1 overall before his elbow shelved him during his senior year of high school. Giolito ended up going at No. 16.
"He's an extremely mature young man and he's a really hard worker. That combination allows you to speed up the curve a little bit," Harris said. "He's going to have an opportunity to compete at the next level next year. Where he goes, we'll see. We're going to use the same course we've used with other pitchers. His innings, like with any young pitchers, we will have parameters. But we expect him to pitch a full season."
Once Giolito gets through that, the gloves should start to come off and the vision of seeing him carving up National League hitters will come into much sharper focus.